Staying connected as Bradford City fans pay tribute to Valley Parade fire disaster victims

On this date for each of the last 35 years, the city of Bradford and fans of its proud football club have rallied together with representatives from Lincoln City, supporting one another as they remember the English game’s worst fire tragedy.
We will remember them: Bradford City fire memorial.We will remember them: Bradford City fire memorial.
We will remember them: Bradford City fire memorial.

In a physical sense, today could not be more different, but emotionally the connections will just be made differently.

Covid-19 and social distancing will keep them apart, but modern technology will bring them together.

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Instead of congregating at Bradford’s Centenary Square, they will log onto computers at 11am to listen to readings and prayers over Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, iFollow and YouTube.

Neil Redfearn: Played for Lincoln City that day.Neil Redfearn: Played for Lincoln City that day.
Neil Redfearn: Played for Lincoln City that day.

Greg Abbott, who played for the Bantams that May 1985 afternoon, believes strengthening the connection between Bradford City and its public and preserving memories of the 56 supporters, including two from Lincoln, who died is essential.

The day was supposed to celebrate the Bantams heading back to Division Two for the first time since 1937.

Unusually, Bradford-born captain Peter Jackson and his team-mates were presented with the Division Three trophy – the club’s first league title in 56 years – before the game. The television cameras were rolling, and kick-off slightly delayed by a lap of honour. A brass band of blue-uniformed teenagers performed on the pitch and the players held up cards, each bearing a letter of the message “Thank you fans”. There were 11,076, nearly double Bradford’s 1984-85 average.

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Around 3,000 were in the main stand, a combination of wooden seats and terracing which had changed little since it was built in 1911.

Greg Abbott: Part of Bradford City side.Greg Abbott: Part of Bradford City side.
Greg Abbott: Part of Bradford City side.

In two days, the condemned structure was due to be demolished to make way for a £400,000 stand.

Its wooden floors were to be replaced with concrete, the wooden roof, fatally sealed with highly flammable asphalt and bitumen, to have steel installed.

Beneath sat litter which had fallen or been swept through gaps in the floor. A charred local newspaper from November, 1968, was later found.

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Lincoln City midfielder Neil Redfearn was back home, playing in front of his father Brian, whose Football League career started with Bradford Park Avenue and ended at City, two clubs his son later played for.

“Bradford got on top early doors but when it was still 0-0 Steve Collins got injured in a goalmouth melee when John Hawley fell on him,” he recalls.

“He’d broken his leg, so I went to left-back. Steve went to Bradford Royal Infirmary, which is where everyone was taken after the fire.”

After 40 minutes of fairly non-descript football, the day took a horrible turn.

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“There were whiffs of smoke initially,” recalls Redfearn. “People were coming onto the pitch but I thought it was fans celebrating. Then you realise it’s far worse. It was a dry Spring day, the pitch was quite hard and the stand was like a tinderbox. You just saw it take off in a surreal, horrific way.”

The commonly-held view is that a discarded cigarette dropped through a gap in the floorboarding of Block G, igniting rubbish below. White smoke quickly turned thick and black.

The fire brigade were radioed at 3.43pm but when they arrived four minutes later, the whole stand was engulfed, embers and molten bitumen cascading in 900C heat.

Carried up by the wind, the fire spread “faster than a man could run” the Government inquiry concluded.

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In the 1980s, the mistrust football’s authorities had in its supporters had fatal consequences.

Fortunately for those who ran forward, Valley Parade’s main stand did not have the pitchside fencing so disastrous at Hillsborough four years later, but there was still a barrier to the pitch. “There was a white wall, about six foot high with a drop (and concrete) on the other side, and people were clambering over it,” explains Redfearn. “My dad was in the stand and so was my partner’s dad and selfishly you think about them. Thankfully for me, they were all right, but so many people were not.”

Half of those who died were either aged under 20 or over 70. More than 265 were injured.

Many did not rush to the front of a stand built on a hill but the back and the entrances they came in from. With most locked to stop supporters sneaking in for free after kick-off and no stewards there to open them, many burnt to death.

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Abbott had planned to be in Centenary Square to remember them today.

“Lads like Stuart McCall and John Hendrie try to get there every year,” he says.

“There have been times when I’ve not been able to make it – I remember one year when I was managing Carlisle – but we’d all planned to be there this year.”

The July, 1985 memorial service was uncomfortable for Redfearn.

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“It was quite soon afterwards, in front of the stand,” he says. “The players attended and it was a really sombre and surreal time.

“Fortunately, the League had decided because we didn’t need the points to stay up (or Bradford to go up) we didn’t have to replay the game. It would have been horrific if we had. You’d lost your appetite.”

Abbott thinks it is important Bradford continues to come together every May 11, and is pleased that in all but the literal sense it will today.

“I think the club should get in touch with all the players to give us a formal invite every year,” he says. “I stand in the background and go for a pint with supporters in Wetherspoons afterwards.

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“None of us are able to do what we should be doing at the moment so it’s good that it’s happening online.

“The important thing is that everyone listens to what is said and it’s never forgotten. It’s got to be remembered. Every bit of success Bradford have I attribute to the people who lost their lives that day.”

English football clubs are all about their history, good and bad. Abbott, born in Coventry but wedded to the Bantams by nine years as a player and stints as chief scout, assistant manager, caretaker and head of recruitment, thinks his club lost its way in that regard but is now heading back in the right direction.

“The club’s got to reconnect itself,” he stresses.

“Prior to Julian (Rhodes) coming back (as chief executive in late 2018), it was not the club Bradford City stands for. We have to stay connected for the people who died that day.”

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